This is Black History Month, and many tributes are made daily to various outstanding individuals of African-American ancestry, all very deserving and in many cases, very well known.
One of the most honored individuals, with complete justification of course, is Jackie Robinson, who broke the baseball color barrier in major league baseball and after a sterling 10-year career took his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
A lot of people even know that Jackie Robinson played college football at UCLA.
But as the late radio announcer Paul Harvey would often intone, that is not the rest of the story.
The UCLA backfield in 1939 indeed featured Robinson, but I would contend that the Bruins backfield that year is the most sociologically significant in the history of college football.
In addition to Robinson, there were three other African-Americans who comprised the Bruins’ 1939 backfield. Ray Bartlett was one, and he is the only one who does not have a role in what the others did.
For in addition to Robinson integrating baseball, fellow backs Kenny Washington and Woody Strode did the same thing in the National Football League. That backfield integrated the two most popular team sports in America, and the two sports that remain the most popular today, although now the roles are reversed and football is number one, as opposed to baseball.
That UCLA backfield competed with national champion and cross-town rival USC for the Pacific Conference Championship and the chance to play in the 1940 Rose Bowl.
The annual meeting between the Bruins and Trojans ended in a 0-0 tie, and USC was awarded the title based on a better overall won-lost record.
Washington’s 1939 senior year was a banner campaign in which he rushed for 1,915 yards and led the nation in total offense. A safety on defense, Washington played all but 20 minutes of the entire season. Just as Robinson played multiple sports at UCLA, so did Washington, who batted .454 in 1937 and .350 in 1938 for the Bruin baseball team.
Many felt he would have been a first team All-American but for his race, and he did make the All-American second team.
The NFL was not ready to embrace black players yet, so Washington played for the minor league Hollywood Bears for five years, but in 1946 the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles with plans to play in the Los Angeles Coliseum. But the Coliseum was a publicly-owned facility, and the Rams had to agree to employ African-American players. They quickly chose Kenny Washington and fellow former Bruin Woody Strode.
Hence, Washington and Strode became the first African-American players on the Rams, and the first to play in the modern NFL.
Washington played three years for the Rams, and his fabled number 13 jersey eventually was the first ever to be retired at UCLA.
After UCLA Strode had also played minor league pro football on the West Coast and had dabbled in pro wrestling as well. His pro football career ended in 1949.
A world-class decathlon athlete at UCLA, he had a physique matched by few and went on to become a pioneer African-American film actor. Strode was nominated for a Golden Globe award for best supporting actor for his role in “Spartacus” in 1960.
All together, Strode appeared in 67 motion pictures from 1941 through 1995, a 55-year career unmatched by most Hollywood veterans.
He became a good friend and favorite actor of noted director John Ford, who gave him big roles in several prominent westerns, including “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” which starred John Wayne.
An intensely loyal individual, Strode reportedly once spent four months sleeping on Ford’s floor as the director’s caretaker, in the time just before the famed director’s death.
By the way, if you have seen the “Toy Story” animated movies, the main character of Sheriff Woody reportedly was named for Strode.
So no one can or should ever taken anything away from the truly fantastic accomplishments of Jackie Robinson, as a baseball player and as a social activist.
But that 1939 UCLA backfield went on to make a proud mark on our society that would be very tough to match in the history of college football.
Congratulations to Jackie, Kenny and Woody. Black History Month would not be the same without you.